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Predictions 2024: Questions Aplenty as Sumo Embarks on a New Year

Terunofuji, Kirishima and Atamifuji are just three of the sumo grapplers who will be in the spotlight when the 15-day New Year Basho kicks off on January 14.

Happy New Year to JAPAN Forward and SportsLook readers. We are pleased to bring you "Predictions 2024," a special New Year's series sharing the foresight and expectations of selected contributors for the coming year in their fields of specialty, continuing with sports reporter Jim Armstrong's forecast for sumo.

Next in the Series

There's no shortage of questions about sumo linked to 2024.

For instance, is Terunofuji in or out? Will Kirishima reach the top? And how about upstart Atamifuji? Can he continue his meteoric rise up the banzuke?

With no clear dominant wrestler emerging from the competition in 2023, sumo should be wide open again in 2024 when there will be plenty of opportunities for veterans and up-and-coming grapplers to make their mark.

One of the big questions heading into 2024 when the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, aka the New Year Basho, kicks off in Tokyo on January 14 will be the status of grand champion Terunofuji.

The 32-year-old Mongolian won the Summer Basho in May for his eighth career top-division championship. But he was otherwise absent in 2023 save for three bouts in the July meet.

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Terunofuji (left) grapples with Wakamotoharu on Day 12 of the Summer Basho at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan on May 25, 2023. (ⒸSANKEI)

Injuries Raise Doubts About Terunofuji's Future

As he battles a series of injuries, the question is how much longer can Terunofuji last?

He has said he wants to win 10 Emperor's Cups but sumo officials expect yokozuna to be dominant and live up to higher standards. 

There is a limit to how much Terunofuji can sit out and he is already pushing the envelope.

If he doesn't come back soon in 2024, he may be forced to retire with his eight championships, not a bad haul for someone who was promoted at 29 years and seven months, the sixth-oldest rikishi to be promoted to yokozuna.

"Terunofuji is running out of excuses," said Hiro Morita, NHK's top sumo analyst. "He'd better prove he still has what it takes to compete at a level expected of yokozuna. If he fails to show up at the next competition, he'll have a hard time ignoring rumblings for retirement."

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Kirishima defeats Takakeisho on Day 15 of the Kyushu Basho on November 26, 2023. (KYODO)

Rising Expectations for Kirishima as a Sumo Wrestler

2024 could be a big year for ozeki Kirishima.

In March 2023, the Mongolian, then known as Kiribayama, triumphed at the Spring Basho in Osaka. It was a result that sealed his promotion to ozeki.

If he gets off to a strong start in the new year, say by winning the January tournament, there will be talk of promoting the 27-year-old to yokozuna.

With Terunofuji hobbled by injury, sumo officials would love nothing more than to find a young, dominant grand champion and Kirishima could fit the bill.

"Among the three ozeki, Kirishima is considered the most consistent," Morita said. "He will be looking to gain yokozuna promotion after the New Year tournament. Another championship would make his case compelling."

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Ozeki Takakeisho receives the Emperor's Cup from Japan Sumo Association chairman Hakkaku after defeating Atamifuji in their playoff match at the Autumn Basho on September 24, 2023, at Ryogoku Kokugikan. (KYODO)

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Takakeisho Coming Off an Up-and-Down Year

Ozeki Takakeisho won the September tournament after claiming the title at the January basho in 2023.

After he won in September there was talk of him possibly earning promotion to yokozuna with a win in the last tournament of the year in Fukuoka in November.

But it wasn't to be. Instead, Takakeisho stumbled to a subpar 9-6 record at the Kyushu Basho, dashing any promotion hopes.

Takakeisho has had a couple of kicks at the yokozuna promotion can and there are those in sumo who feel he's had his chance and is better suited to the ozeki rank.

In addition, Hoshoryu captured the Nagoya title in July and was shortly thereafter promoted to ozeki. He was 8-7 in September and 10-5 in November.

The nephew of former yokozuna Asashoryu, Hoshryu is capable of better things in 2024.

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Atamifuji secures a victory over Abi at the Autumn Basho on September 23, 2023. (KYODO)

Atamifuji Raises Profile with Successful Results

One emerging star to keep an eye on in the new year will be 21-year-old Atamifuji of Terunofuji's Isegahama stable.

Atamifuji burst on the scene in 2023 when he won the juryo division in July to earn promotion to the top division for the September meet where he went 11-4 before losing to Takakeisho in a winner-take-all playoff.

He then followed that up with another superb performance in Kyushu when he contended for the title right up until the final day when he lost to Kotonowaka

With some top-division experience under his belt, Atamifuji should be a force to be reckoned with in 2024.

"Atamifuji ended 2023 with four consecutive double-digit winning records," Morita points out. "Don't be surprised if the 21-year-old is in the mix for the championship again in the New Year tournament."

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Kotonowaka (left) and Kotokatsumine train at Sadogatake stable in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, on December 30, 2023. (KYODO)

Kotonowaka Impressed in 2023

And speaking of Kotonowaka, the sekiwake is quietly making his case for promotion to the highest ranks of the sport.

"In my opinion, the wrestler who showed the most growth in 2023 is Kotonowaka," added Morita. "He spent all six tournaments in the upper echelon sanyaku ranks achieving a winning record in each of them."

The Sadogatake stable wrestler went 11-4 in two of the last three tournaments in 2023. During that time he took home two Fighting Spirit Prizes.

The 26-year-old son of former sekiwake Kotonowaka and grandson of 53rd yokozuna Kotozakura is definitely trending upward and 2024 could be his year for a major breakthrough.

"I anticipate his promotion to ozeki and see the day when he inherits the ring name of his grandfather," Morita said.

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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